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Column: The long way around

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 10:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 11:00 a.m. CDT

Trailer trash, hillbilly haven and tornado magnet, mobile homes are frequently the punchline to jokes. They’ve often been ridiculed as low class shelters for those who can’t afford anything else, but a new tiny house movement is starting to shift that paradigm. Last weekend at the Jasper County Fairgrounds residents had a chance to tour some of these tiny homes and meet their creators who’ve turned their backs on America’s relentless quest for bigger and better.

Mobile homes haven’t always had a less than sterling reputation. When John Steinbeck wrote his seminal travel essay, Travels with Charley, they represented a unique section of upwardly mobile Americans. As Steinbeck traveled the country with Charley, his Standard Poodle, he stayed in several mobile home parks in Rocacinte, the name he gave his pickup truck outfitted with a drop in camper. Owning a mobile home represented a chance to move up in society, and the residents told him they were prepared to keep moving in search of better opportunities.

A whole new generation of Americans who’ve taken this advice to heart are choosing to travel light in search of new adventures. Driven by increasing housing costs, around the country more and more people are looking at ways to live minimallistically while keeping their budgets low. With 73 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, it’s easy to see how living without the constraints of a 30-year year mortgage can be a powerful draw.

Wanderlust, or the desire for wandering, has captured the attention of the 83 million millennials in the country. With an entire generation of “Peter Pans” living with their parents longer, attending secondary schools, traveling more and delaying their entry into adulthood, it’s no wonder these 100-400 square feet homes are appealing. They provide residents the freedom to live on their own and be connected to the community without the financial restrictions of a mortgage. Like Natalie Maines, they’re taking the long way around, even if they don’t have a pink RV with stars on the ceiling.

Wandering is ingrained in our DNA, just as our ancestors gave up their homes, said goodbye to their families and set out to make a new life out on the frontier a new generation is following in their footsteps. Each one of these tiny homes represents that wanderlust, a tiny frontier out on the horizon.

While the designs may differ, ranging from trailer based homes to buses and everything in between, mobility remains the key idea. After decades of staying in place, young America is on the move again. It may be a phenomena that’s started elsewhere, however Tiny Fest Midwest is proof it’s taken root in Iowa as well.

Among my friends, several are working on their own tiny houses. Brett, a bicycle mechanic who lives in West Des Moines, has been looking for the perfect bus to call home. After years of constantly relocating around the Midwest for work, Brett has realized he doesn’t need much to be happy. Most weekends you’ll find him camping out the back of his Subaru with his dog Bruce.

Brett’s dream is to buy and fully outfitted bus that’ll allow him to live off the grid. He’s been stockpiling materials for his project for the past several years and he’s looking for the perfect bus to call home. He’s spent a lot of time thinking about the design, with a goal of ultimately building a self contained living space. It might be hard for most people to understand his motivation but, once the bus is finished, he’ll be constantly on the move, shuffling between Walmart parking lots and campgrounds, hunting for the perfect parking spot for his rig.

His love life might take a hit and he’ll have to give up his apartment, but Brett said he won’t miss it at all. He’s excited for the chance to own a home of his own, even if it’s on wheels.

They may have wheels, but home ownership still remains the goal for many Americans. On their bus Brett and Bruce will finally have a home of their own, that’ll follow them wherever their adventures take them next.

Contact David Dolmage at ddolmage@newtondailynews.com

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